I continued on, but in May of 1981, my mother died. This shook me to the core and I missed the end of the quarter and spent early summer settling my parents affairs and trying to avoid the depression and fear that was lurking all too close in my psyche.
I did manage to do an independent study that summer. It helped me take my mind off everything else that was going on. My woman graduate student colleague left the program to continue her studies at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basil, Switzerland, one of the most prestigious design school in the world with one of the leading designers and teachers, Wolfgang Weingart. I was envious.
Fall came and I was back at the University full time with a teaching schedule, now teaching beginning typographic design. I was given the syllabus so that took away some responsibility and work. I liked typographic design as I wasn’t much of an image maker. Structurally, I could integrate type and image on a page, but my work was stiff and very formal, lacking the dynamic elegance I wanted, but really didn’t understand how to achieve it. The great designer’s work I admired for that ‘dynamic elegance’, I could not manage.
I was due to graduate spring the next year and needed to decide on a thesis project. My major professor had a call from the Iowa State Fair Board for help to redesign their fabric exhibit hall and he thought it would be something that I could do as the project. I was familiar with spatial design from my construction background and, not having any better ideas myself, I took it on.
It was fun. I photographed and measured the space dimensions. I was back in my element of construction drawings. I researched anything and everything I could find about exhibit design: how people wander through space, how they see space, how to create flow to guide people in a subtle way through a given space. My project was my coursework and I spent every available minute other than my teaching load. There was a structure to it and I relished in having that. I was able to apply my new design criteria and vocabulary together.
I worked with an architecture professor on my graduate committee about model building. I had my plans, built my model, photographed in with a closeup lens with scaled cutouts of people. It turned out more realistic than I could have imagined.
Then there was the written part which I dreaded but forged on through. I did not type so it was all hand written. I hired a wonderful secretary in the Art and Design office to type out the transcript. The next hurdle was presenting this to the Fair Board and then to my graduate committee.
I did the Fair Board presentation and they loved it. Their only problem was budget which had nothing to do with me. I went to the Iowa State Fair two years later and saw that they had actually incorporated as much as they probably could afford. It was great to see people moving through a space I had designed. I felt proud.
The Graduate Committee meeting was set. As protocol, I brought treats, what, I cannot remember. There were five members on my committee, including representives from Graphic Design, Interior Design, Architecture, along with the Chairman of the Department of Art and Design. It was like entering the lions den, the gates of Hades, the ocean of Jaws. I had a slide show, drawings and all my backup research materials as well as my newly gained knowledge. I was unanimously passed. I graduated spring, 1982. I was forty-one years old.